Breitkopf’s Brahms and Busch

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Celebrating their 300th Anniversary in 2019, august publishing house Breitkopf & Härtel reissued several heritage editions alongside their typically exciting new publications.

I have recently reviewed their edition of Joachim Raff’s Piano Sonatas and reissue of Clara Schumann’s celebrated edition of her late husband Robert Schumann’s complete piano works, with fingering by Wilhelm Kempff.

Now I’m looking at their reissued Complete Piano Works of Johannes Brahms, drawn from the Urtext of the Brahms Complete Edition issued by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreund, Vienna: this is the famous edition prepared by Brahms’ close personal friend Eusebius Mandyczewski (1857-1929).

And, breaking newer ground, I’ll also discuss Jakob Fichert’s new urtext edition of Adolf Busch’s (1891-1952) Piano Sonata in C minor Op.25.

Brahms: Complete Piano Works

Brahms’ piano works have long been enjoyed as one of the essential core bodies of work for the instrument composed in the Romantic era.

His piano works broadly appeared in three waves:

  • The three Sonatas Opp. 1, 2 and 5 date from 1853-4.
  • These were followed by the monumental sets of Variations on themes by Schumann (1853), an Original theme Op.21/1 and Hungarian Theme Op.21/2 (1861), Handel Op.24 (1861) and Paganini Op.35 (1866).
  • Finally, the shorter pieces, including the Ballades Op.10 (1856) and Waltzes Op.39 (1866), but predominantly later works from the 1880’s and 90’s.

In addition to these masterpieces, Brahms wrote numerous other short arrangements, transcriptions and piano exercises. And we mustn’t forget the well-loved Hungarian Dances.

The Breitkopf edition divides these works into three sturdy and economical volumes:

  1. The Sonatas and Variations
  2. The Shorter Works
  3. The Studies and Arrangements

Those wishing to explore these works through a set of good recordings will find that many of the greatest pianists have committed Brahms’ piano music to disc. For me, a benchmark set to which I still return are the 1960’s Decca recordings by Julius Katchen; the rather dry recorded sound is perfect here, illuminating the clarity of Katchen’s tone and textural command superbly.

The Eusebius Mandyczewski Edition

If Katchen’s recordings of Brahms’ piano music are ageing nicely, so too is the Mandyczewski edition of the scores.

Mandyczewski was born in the village of Bahrynivka (then in Austria-Hungary, today in the Ukraine) in 1857, and moved to the imperial capital in 1875 to study music at the Vienna Conservatory. After meeting Brahms in 1879, the two became close life-long friends; in addition to joining Brahms’ inner circle, Mandyczewski was appointed by the composer to be curator of his estate.

Though a gifted musician, teacher and composer himself, Mandyczewski’s most lasting legacy is perhaps his edition of his friend Brahms’ works; he also prepared a complete urtext edition of the music of Schubert.

As Breitkopf’s Susanne Mahn advised me,

“At some point of time of editorial history that very edition was the ‘ultimate’ edition – especially because of the close friendship between Brahms and the editor. From our today’s point of view this edition may be coated with a patina, but on the other hand (if I am not mistaken) no “modern” Urtext edition of these works comes with revolutionary new findings around the corner, too.”

Mandyczewski’s edition has been the basis of many reprints, including those of International Music Company, Schirmer, and Dover. It also formed the basis of the urtext Peters Edition of 1974.

And while the latter included useful editorial performing suggestions, the reprint of the Breitkopf & Hartel urtext is hugely welcome, offering today’s players the best presented, most durable and authoritative version.

The notation, printed as usual on high quality cream paper, is beautifully engraved and enjoys optimum spacing to ensure that Brahms’ often dense writing is always clear on the page.

I should note that as with Breitkopf’s Schumann reissue, there is neither any Introduction at the start, nor Critical Commentary to the rear. To choose the Mandyczewski edition is to commit to it, though given its provenance that’s surely no bad thing. Many will thus value this set as an excellent and keenly priced performing edition, and one with an auspicious legacy.

Others will find themselves drawn to the edition as a second version of the texts, offering as it does a useful counterpart to the more recent urtexts from Henle and Bärenreiter: today as ever, the Mandyczewski edition has particular historical value.

To summarise, anyone looking for a well engraved, highly respected edition of the complete Brahms piano music would do well to include this on their shortlist.

Busch: Piano Sonata in C minor Op.25

How interesting that the shadow of Brahms looms so large over the music of Adolf Busch (1891-1952), whose Sonata in C minor Op.25 also features among Breitkopf’s recent publications.

Busch is perhaps best remembered as one of the great violinists of the 20th century, successful both as soloist and chamber musician, and founder of the world famous Busch Quartet. The fact that he was also a prolific and accomplished composer is less well-known.

Listening to pianist Jakob Fichert’s brilliant recording of Busch’s complete solo piano music for Toccata Classics (available here) it is striking that the composer seems to pick up the baton just where Brahms left it, albeit with the added influences of Ferruccio Busoni and mentor Max Reger.

The Sonata in C minor is in three distinct movements. The dramatic opening Allegro moderato con passione is followed by a highly imaginative Andante con variaioni, while the work concludes with a Finale, Introduzione e fuga, whose counterpoint rivals that of his younger contemporary Paul Hindemith.

This three-movement design rather self-consciously looks back to the sonatas of Beethoven, seemingly eschewing the structural innovations of Liszt, Skryabin and Berg. Nevertheless, here we find lushly arching post-Romantic melody lines accompanied by ripe harmonic chromaticism, dazzling octaves, syncopated figuration much like that of Brahms’ later piano works, and the sort of dense textures that leave many pianists longing for a third hand.

As to this last point, Fichert notes in his fascinating Preface to the Breitkopf edition,

“Despite Busch’s general understanding of the instrument and his excellent musical intuition, it becomes evident from numerous instances that he was often treading on unknown territory and trying to emulate the organ or a symphony orchestra, rather than writing idiomatically for the piano.”

For his edition, Fichert helps answer the performative questions this raises by adding his own fingerings to those of the composer, based on those developed in performance and while recording the work.

The edition appears in the standard Breitkopf Urtext style, with great attention clearly paid to every detail. The two-page Preface appears in both German and English, while there is a detailed Critical Commentary at the back of the book (in German only). How lovely, too, to see a beautifully reproduced facsimile of the opening page of the composer’s autograph manuscript.

Breitkopf are to be congratulated for mining the vaults to bring us such lesser-known gems from the archives of the German romantic tradition; Busch’s Sonata reveals itself to be as enjoyable as it is formidable, and I urge readers looking to extend their knowledge of the advanced repertoire to check it out!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.